Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE LIMIT OF DEFENSIVE OUTLAY: MR. COBDEN'S THREE PANICS. ( From The Economist, 26 th April, 1862.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE LIMIT OF DEFENSIVE OUTLAY: MR. COBDEN’S THREE PANICS. ( From “ The Economist, ” 26 th April, 1862.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE LIMIT OF DEFENSIVE OUTLAY: MR. COBDEN’S THREE PANICS.
Mr. Cobden has during the last ten days contributed much to our instruction and something to our intellectual entertainment. He has written a very remarkable letter on the laws of warfare on which we have much to say, though we are reluctantly compelled to postpone it now, and he has even more recently published a pamphlet entitled the “Three Panics, an historical episode,” which is a shrewd and sharp commentary upon the military, and especially upon the naval, outlay of the last few years. It is little to say that this essay is well worth notice: Mr. Cobden’s writings must always be so. He never writes save on a subject on which he has abundant knowledge and peculiar views; he has too the first literary merit—a style which drives thoughts home. Whatever he writes must always be read with pleasure, and will very seldom be read by any one without instruction. But this pamphlet deals with the question of the time. Can any competent and fair-minded person say, in the face of the vast increase in our naval expenditure—in the face of the new inventions which are daily augmenting in number—which increase faster and faster every year, that he does not want some guiding principle—some distinct rule which shall determine precisely when this vast outlay is injurious and wasteful, and when, on the other hand, it is beneficial and wise? On one point we are all agreed. We all hate to spend this money; we all hate aggression; we all hate taxation. We only pay our present taxes because it is said that the present expenditure is essential to our defence.
Mr. Cobden, as we know, believes that this notion is a pure delusion, and he accumulates a great deal of history to justify his opinion. He says that there was one panic in 1846, when Prince de Joinville wrote his pamphlet and when the Duke of Wellington’s letter was first published; there was another in 1852, at the beginning of the Empire. The military panic of 1846, he tells us, was extinguished by the commercial panic of 1847 and by the revolution of 1848; the panic of 1852 was extinguished by the Russian war, in which we were allied to the French Emperor, of whom we were in such painful dread. The panic of 1861, he suggests, will conclude with the following passage of Sir G. C. Lewis’s speech on the 17th February, 1862:—
“There was one article required for Canada that was not used by any of our regiments, and which was not in store in this country—the article of long boots. The French Government having been informed of our difficulty, undertook the supply of 1,500 pairs of boots, which came over in forty-eight hours from Paris, and at a cost for which they could have scarcely been obtained from our contractors. I am happy to mention this as a proof of the friendly action of the French Government (hear, hear).” “And thus,” says Mr. Cobden, “ends the third panic.”
Mr. Cobden shows at great length, and with much ability, that the accounts given in 1846, in 1852, and in 1861, of the proceedings in the French dockyards, were certainly inconsistent with one another, and were often as certainly erroneous. He shows that the modes of comparison adopted by various speakers were radically at variance with one another, were often unsound, and were often adapted rather to the immediate argumentative wants of the speaker than to any higher purpose. He is especially watchful of certain “block-ships,” which seem to appear whenever the Admiralty is attacked for not having ships enough, and which seem to disappear whenever it asks Parliament to vote money for more ships. He shows that a startling passage in Lord Lyndhurst’s celebrated oration had little, if any, foundation. He accumulates instances in which the French naval force has not only been exaggerated, but grossly exaggerated.
But these are easy victories on the outworks of a great and complicated topic. What is the true test by which we shall determine whether our outlay is wise or unwise? That is the heart of the question. If we decide that, we shall not need reference to old speeches in Parliament; if we do not decide that, all Hansard will be irrelevant—may probably mislead into dangerous error.
What, then, is this test? It certainly is not the absolute magnitude of the French navy. Mr. Cobden not merely admitted, but maintained and expounded this in Parliament, in a speech to which he refers in this Pamphlet: “France has a large extent of coast which entitles her to maintain a large navy, but it does not follow that France desires to have as large a navy as you. I say that France ought not to have as large a navy as England. Nay, I go further, and say that if I saw a disposition on the part of France to have as large a navy as England, and especially if I saw a disposition not to yield to the offer of an explanation, I should suspect France of having a sinister purpose in those armaments, and, if it came to a question of rivalry after that offer of explanation had been made, I would as cheerfully vote £100,000,000 sterling as I would vote £5,000,000 under the present system; and for this reason—and it is a reason to which I am sure the French would yield if it were properly put to them—that England has no frontier but the sea, and has, unfortunately, forty or fifty colonies which have no defence except her navy. England has five times the mercantile navy of France, and this gives her the right to have a larger navy than France; while France, as a military power, requires to have a large army to guard her frontier against the other great military powers.”
We must have a defensive force equal to the attacking force. It is obvious that, as our fleet must be distributed, and theirs may be concentrated, ours should be much larger than theirs—must be much larger if it is to be effectual for the purpose. Equality in figures is inferiority in reality. France, too, may not be alone. A coalition between her and any other great naval power may not be likely, but it is possible; it is within those fair limits of reasonable probability which should regulate our measures of precaution. The Stock Exchange was excited not very long since, to its inmost capitalists, by a rumour that there was a general combination between France and Russia. Many persons were ruined by that error; and though we should not take extreme precaution, we should take some precaution against a contingency of which the very anticipation is so dangerous and so fatal.
But if the absolute amount of the French navy is not the true criterion for limiting ours, what is that criterion? The amount up to which we should reasonably insure is in this case, as in all other cases, the limit of possible danger. The worst event which we can fairly anticipate is the event against which, as reasonable men, we should provide. We ought to have a producible fleet to defend our shores, not only equal, but decidedly superior to every producible fleet which can be brought against us. We say producible, to get rid of the technical expressions “in commission,” “afloat,” etc. We must have at hand workable, effectual ships, better than the very best which we can reasonably expect to be accumulated against us. That our force should be equal will not be enough; it must be superior. Failure to an enemy is an ordinary defeat, is a momentary check in a very arduous enterprise. But failure in a Channel engagement to us would be an irreparable calamity. The landing of a hostile army on our shores, while our fleet is vanquished and disabled, would be an approximation to ruin which we ought never to risk,—which we must assuredly ward off.
But if this is the true criterion, how is it to be applied? We boldly say that we should annually have an official estimate of the maximum probable force which can be brought against us, and a comparative view of the means of meeting it. We require, if we are to maintain our present outlay, or any similar outlay, a military Budget; we require the best estimate that can be made of the ways and means of possible enemies on the one hand, and of our own ways and means on the other. Of course all such estimates must be very rough: the best of them must contain many imperfections of detail; but it is not too much to ask, now that our military estimates for next year are £16,000,000, and our naval estimates are £11,800,000, that we should have yearly, not loose talk as now, but a bonâ-fide business-like official statement of what it is apprehended may be brought against us, and of what we have in readiness to meet it. Official men speak under a sense of peculiar responsibility, and they will never feel its beneficial effects more than when they speak upon the defence of their country, and upon the probable resources of its possible enemies.
We shall have it objected that such an official estimate as we have now proposed would anger foreign nations. And if nothing had ever been said in the English Parliament as to foreign armaments, the objection might have conclusive weight and force. But every one knows that such statements have been made in Parliament. Every one knows that vague assertions about the French navy—the navy of the most susceptible foreign nation—have been made by speakers of weight and name. Mr. Cobden has collected several by the Prime Minister himself. And if such statements are hazarded, they should be exact and useful statements. We are now running the risk of offending foreign nations, and are not obtaining the desired advantage of instructing our own. If we incur the danger, let us gain the prize. Let us give such full, clear, and systematic statements as will be a fair assurance to the country that we have approximately estimated the danger to be encountered, and the resources with which we are to encounter it.
We shall be told that we cannot obtain this information, and it is possible that sometimes there may be a little difficulty. But we share with Mr. Cobden a suspicion of unknown dangers. If a risk is imperceptible, perhaps it is unreal. If there are any very terrible armaments in Europe, those who will pay well for information respecting them will easily get the best information. Empires are not ruined in a corner. The only fleet of which we need be afraid will be a tolerably conspicuous fleet, of which we can nearly enough count the number, and nearly enough also compute the power.
We are confident that if this information were sedulously obtained and frankly communicated,—if the discussion in the English Parliament were periodical, full, and accurate,—the certain effect in foreign countries would be important and would be pacific. Now, when startling announcements are shrouded in an atmosphere of mystery, the result is doubtless prejudicial. These exceptional confidences are fearful to us, and naturally excite the enmity of others. But if the English nation were yearly called into council on its concerns,—if it yearly heard what were its military liabilities and what were its military assets,—if, as a set official matter, the military resources of foreign nations were annually expounded to us,—no odium would be excited or umbrage would presumably be taken on any particular occasion. We should not be computing our aggressive strength, but computing our defensive strength. And what is of yet greater importance, foreign nations would understand clearly what now they scarcely understand at all, that our armaments are really and exclusively regulated by theirs—that if they diminish we shall diminish, and if they do not augment we shall never augment. Mr. Cobden proposes some kind of arrangement or negotiation with his friend the French Emperor. But, as men of business, we shrink from “understandings” with our competitors. Unless they are very full, very accurate, and very comprehensive, they are sure to lead to mis-understandings. Definite treaties are good, and general confidence is excellent, but vague, shadowy, and impalpable conventions will only exacerbate the ill-feeling which they are designed to allay. A regular discussion in Parliament would obtain the expected advantage, and would not involve the possible danger. The French Emperor and every other Sovereign would then well know our motives. If he was bonâ-fide desirous of a sincere peace, he would reduce his armaments; and only if he were not so desirous would he not reduce them.
At present we are voting these vast sums upon grounds which are inconclusive and irrelevant; Mr. Cobden is objecting to them for reasons which are equally so. He tells us to disarm, but does not prove that there is no danger; we continue arming, but we do not ascertain that there is danger. Neither course is wise nor rational. Mr. Cobden says the military services are always desirous of expenditure, but there is an electioneering anecdote of the last century which they might quote against him. A certain stupid baronet objected to Mr. Fox that he was always opposed to Mr. Pitt, whether Mr. Pitt were right or wrong. Horne Tooke judiciously remarked that upon that showing it was an equal objection to the baronet that he always supported Mr. Pitt whether right or wrong. Mr. Cobden always objects to armaments; soldiers, he says, always advocate them. Unless we have a business-like estimate of the danger, who can say which of them is wise and which is unwise?